Amid cancer treatments, Allyson Allred leads the charge in raising funds for ocular melanoma research.
When she was walking along the beach in July, Allyson had her first seizure. She’d said she felt numb and like she needed to sit down for a minute, and her friend Julie ended up catching her as she fell. When Julie yelled for help, a man, who just happened to be a physical therapist, ran to catch Allyson’s head. Minutes later, a doctor and nurse who were at the right beach at the right time came to help, knowing what to do when Julie had no idea. “Everything just worked out. You couldn’t plan that,” Allyson says.
Even though both of their husbands were sitting further down on the shore, all the people Allyson needed were there. “She kept her mind focused on those three people, and she leaned into that, not the negative stuff,” Julie says. Neither of them knew at the time that the seizure was caused by inflammation in Allyson’s brain from her first radiation treatment. “That’s been such an example to me in daily life, to focus on the things I see that are good, not what’s going wrong,” Julie says.
No matter her circumstances, Allyson Allred’s joyful strength continues to inspire those around her. She’s been fighting cancer on and off since she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare eye cancer, and had her right eye removed in 2001. Over the years since her surgery, the cancer metastasized to other areas in her body including her liver, kidney, and ovary. Now, still getting used to a new medication, she welcomes friends into her Heatherwood home to pray with her. Julie Kehl, who was with her on the beach, curls up on the couch in the living room with the Allreds’ new puppy, Sissy.
Even while trying new treatments to fight the cancer doctors found in April, this summer has been big for Allyson and others spreading awareness of ocular melanoma. In May, Allyson and three other women who’ve had the eye cancer, Juleigh Green, Ashley McCrary and Lori Lee, headed up the Eyepatch Challenge, encouraging people to experience what it’s like to have one eye, share it on social media and donate to their research goal.
Only five people in one million will have ocular melanoma statistically, so it’s unbelievable that these four women found each other. The only reason Allyson knew what it was when she got her diagnosis was because she heard about Juleigh. “My Sunday school class at Briarwood had been praying for her, and she had a brand-new baby, got diagnosed and got her eye removed,” she says. What’s even stranger is that Allyson, Juleigh, Ashley and Lori all graduated from Auburn and three of them lived in the same area of dorms on campus. Allyson’s doctors, the world-renowned ocular melanoma experts in Philadelphia, were shocked that she had a few friends with the same cancer, let alone that there are at least 38 Auburn grads with it too. It’s one of the largest clusters in the country.
“I think they’re hoping it will go away, but people are still being diagnosed,” Allyson says of how Auburn has approached the cluster, first highlighted by AL.com a year and a half ago when they interviewed her. Without much support from the university or the state from the start, the women have made their desire for research well-known throughout the country, being recognized by CBS This Morning, NBC Nightly News, the TODAY Show, and in a People Magazine feature. If they reach their goal to fund research and find the cause of the melanoma, Allyson’s doctors in Philadelphia can have a cure in five years, she says. And after months of little response, in late July, Auburn announced that they will fund the first wave of research, the geospatial analysis.
While raising awareness, Allyson finds joy in the community they’ve created. “Most people don’t have anybody. With outreach through Facebook, we’ve found people across the country who didn’t know anyone else who had this,” she says. “Their doctors may say ‘We have nothing for you.’ To me, there’s always something.” She had Juleigh to reach out to when she was diagnosed, and now she’s been that same resource and person to relate to for others.
Allyson finds joy in so much more, too. Through multiple scares of the cancer coming back and trying different surgeries and treatments, her smile is contagious and her spirit bright. “It definitely makes you appreciate life, that every day and every second is a gift from God,” she says of her experience with fighting the cancer in some form since 2001. “No one knows how many days we each have, so it’s taught me that our days are already numbered.”
Her faith is unwavering, and Allyson is always giving hope to others, whether she’s posting encouraging messages on the Auburn Ocular Melanoma Facebook page or just talking with her friends. “She’s taught us so much,” Julie says. “Allyson is childlike in her faith, so she doesn’t go to those dark ‘what ifs.’ She just knows God will make a way for her. I think if she had a more cynical personality, she may not be alive today.”
Even though she doesn’t know if they all share her faith in what God will do, her doctors see such value in her hope and positivity. “The ablation worked for five years, which is unheard of. Things that shouldn’t’ve worked, worked. I’m in the top one percent for all the treatments. That belief that God is healing me plays a part in what I expect to happen and how my body aligns with it,” Allyson says. But she’s not just expecting good things to happen— she’s constantly in contact with miraculous circumstances.
Like on the beach, when Allyson went to her first treatment in Philadelphia, she was around the right people at the perfect moment. She and her husband John got to the airport to discover that Allyson’s luggage was lost, in the middle of their journey to a new city with new doctors. When she reported it at the desk, a woman overheard her and asked if she and her husband could help. The couple, Yvonne and Lou, offered them a ride to their hotel and to the hospital the next day, and Yvonne took Allyson shopping to get everything she needed, still complete strangers. “Just seeing God work makes me much less anxious,” Allyson says. “God provided the friendliest and kindest people every step of the way.”